The facility doubled the salary of its 2010 rates, and surpassed all similar salaries in the industry

by Shari Finnell, writer/editor Not for Profit News

When Richard Lapinski took over as executive director/CEO of the Indiana United Methodist Children’s Home (IUMCH), it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t be there to win over friends. The Lebanon-based facility was facing serious challenges, including a significant cut in referrals from the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) — the primary source of its youth resident placements. Difficult decisions had to be made.

IUMCH only had about 27 youth residents, down from an average of 75 to 80 — more than a 60 percent reduction, Lapinski recalled. However, the facility still had more than 110 employees on its payroll — functioning with an infrastructure that had become outdated with the loss of residents. “And that number was rapidly decreasing for a number of reasons,” Lapinski said.

With awareness increasing about best practices for caring for troubled youth, many of whom had been abused or neglected in their previous homes, IUMCH wasn’t measuring up as a preferred placement facility. “Our organization didn’t really have the structure or appropriate behavioral models in place to care for the kids properly,” Lapinski said.

Since placements were being drastically cut and, consequently, revenue from the state, the facility had resorted to using $4.2 million from its endowment to cover operational costs, Lapinski noted. “They (IUMCH) have a very healthy endowment but that was not going to last long if we stayed on that track,” he said.

Lapinski, with the board’s approval, set in motion a series of recommendations that included investing in the construction of new facilities, training of employees under a new model of care, eliminating 55 positions and, eventually, boosting the salary of its house parents to a combined $100,000 — up from the $50,000 they were paid when he first arrived in 2010.

While the internal changes sent ripples throughout the organization, the decision to boost the salary of house parents made many other organizations take notice nationally. “It was sticker shock, in a positive way. You can get a lot of people’s attention,” Lapinski said of the significant salary hike, which was designed to address IUMCH’s challenges with attracting experienced house parents and retaining them. At the same time, it sent an unmistakable message about the critical role house parents had in delivering quality, caring services to youth on behalf of IUMCH.

The strategy worked. Highly qualified house parents, many working at larger, well-known institutions throughout the country, suddenly took interest in relocating to Lebanon, Ind., for the opportunity to work at IUMCH. “We, at one point, didn’t actively recruit,” Lapinski said of the surge in interest.

Initiating difficult discussions

Before arriving at the IUMCH in 2010, Lapinski had first-hand experience with understanding the unique challenges facing nonprofits dedicated to the care of youth facing numerous risk factors, such as abuse, neglect and abandonment. He had previously served as executive director of the Presbyterian Home for Children in Amarillo, Texas.

He and his wife, Stephanie, also served as family teachers for five years at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Neb. In those roles, the couple lived in a family home with up to eight youth, providing 24/7 care.

It was that previous experience that convinced Lapinski that IUMCH had to overhaul its approach to caring for its youth residents, especially after he observed the day-to-day practices at the children’s home.

During his first meeting with IUMCH’s executive committee, which also was attended by board members, Lapinski was blunt. “I told them if I was a youth, I would hate to live here.,” he recalled. “It was more like a detention facility than a residential group home for youth. When I told them that, they looked at me and said, ‘We were always told that this was the best place in Indiana if you had to be placed out of the home.’”

At their next meeting, Lapinski showed them footage taken from cameras throughout the housing facility. Among them were instances of restraints of youth residents. “We would restrain you on a daily basis, so I showed them five restraints. I didn’t pick the worst five, I just ran it in a loop,” he recalled. “After I scraped their jaws off the table, then we were able to gather their thoughts.”

Lapinski also reminded them of the DCS’s decision to drastically reduce placements with their facility — another convincing sign that major changes were needed.

“We had gone for nine months without a referral from DCS,” he said. “Keep in mind, not even with their worst kid, one that they had a hard time finding a placement anywhere, we didn’t get that referral. So we needed to make some changes. And it was difficult because we had staff members who had been here for 20 and 30 years. They were ingrained in how they did things and didn’t want to make any changes.”

The team called an emergency meeting to discuss switching to a teaching family model, an evidence-based trauma informed care model approved by the American Psychological Association. “I really didn’t need to convince anybody … the writing was on the wall that we needed to make those changes,” Lapinski said. “DCS had stopped placing youth with us. They were picking the organizations that they were going to continue to utilize and we were not one of them.”

Moving toward an unprecedented pay scale

The IUMCH team arranged a visit to the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, a facility that was similar to the Lebanon group home — and had fully transitioned to the teaching family model that was first implemented by Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home. Currently, the Teaching Family Association has agencies throughout the United States and worldwide, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada that are using the model. Lapinski serves as the board president.

As a result of those initial meetings and tours, IUMCH committed to the construction of six new teaching family homes as a new state-of-the-art on-grounds school, which opened in 2015. They also agreed to eliminate 55 positions as they transitioned to the new model of care.
They soon realized the transformation of their care model could not end there. IUMCH was facing recruiting, hiring and retention challenges with family house parents — an experience that is common in the industry because of the intense demands of the position.

Under IUMCH’s job description, family house parents are a married couple who would commit to living within a group home. While they have their own private apartment, they are committed to caring for six to eight youth five to six days a week. “It’s such a unique position to try to hire for,” Lapinski said. “You need to find a couple that works together who are also trained in the family teaching model and really have a passion for the mission of caring for youth. At minimum, they’re working with the youth 80 hours a week.”

Currently, the average salary nationally for a teacher family couple is a combined $58,000.

“When I first started implementing the model (at IUMCH), we were paying $50,000 a couple — or $25,000 per person. It really isn’t that much money, but when you consider that housing, food and utilities is provided, it’s really like $72,000 to $75,000,” Lapinski said.

Although IUMCH was recruiting nationally — including in Alaska, Ohio, California, Nevada, Florida and Texas, they found it increasingly difficult to find house parents or family teachers, especially during periods in which the economy was stable. They increased the salary offer to $58,000 but still had challenges locating the right couples for vacant positions.

Lapinski said it was critical to find couples that were committed to the care of the youth. “If you really don’t have the passion and the commitment, you won’t last four to six months in this role. Not only is that bad for the organization, it’s absolutely terrible for our kids who already have reactive attachment disorder,” he said.

Faced with the prospect of closing one of its group homes due to the lack of staff, Lapinski said he analyzed how they could effectively recruit the best couples to fill the roles. The answer? Raising the salary for family teachers to $100,000 — at least more than $20,000 than any other organization paid for the position.

“Needless to say, we didn’t have a problem hiring family teachers and being able to drill down to find the most qualified couples that we could recruit,” Lapinski said. “It really put our organization in a wonderful place by providing stability. Our turnover is considerably lower now. The average turnover for a family teaching couple nationwide is 18 months. We’ve had couples here for four years.”

The investment in the salary increase was well placed, Lapinski said. “They’re worth every penny,” he said. “Our family teachers are truly the backbone of our organization.” The organization also increased the pay scale for assistant family teachers, who typically are recruited locally.

Lapinski noted that it wasn’t difficult to get buy-in from IUMCH’s board for the salary increase. “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be,” he said. “When we were faced with closing a home down because we couldn’t staff it, and that caught our board’s attention.”

Overall, the changes have been instrumental in helping IUMCH effectively carry out its mission. “We’re able to provide better services to the children we serve and achieve cost savings by reducing turnover and the rehiring and retraining of staff,” Lapinski said.

The organization also won the trust of the DCS, which now makes about 500 referrals a year to IUMCH, Lapinski said.

While the drastic changes were challenging at times, Lapinski said he never lost faith in the process. “You could call me the hatchet man,” he said. “However, I never lost a minute of sleep because I knew the end result was going to be much better for the kids.”

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